Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.
I’d been a fan of Laura Ruby for quite some time, having read, I think, all of her books–both YA and middle grade–as they were released. I also followed her online and quickly realized I wasn’t just a fan of Laura Ruby’s work, but of Laura Ruby herself because she’s smart and passionate and funny and angry, often all at the same time. She’s also thoughtful and honest and energizing, whether she’s talking about sexism or YA publishing or what it means to be an adult, whether she’s writing a novel, a blog post, or 140 characters. If you’re not well acquainted, this would be an excellent time to fix that, especially because…
Always Something There to Remind Me
Please describe your teenage self.
I was alternately furious and sad, opinionated and confused, arrogant and awkward, articulate and incomprehensible, focused and aimless, ferocious and nearly witless with terror. I was desperate for attention and at the same time I didn’t want anyone to look at me, ever, for fear I might explode with anxiety. I loved my friends with an intensity that was almost painful, and yet I was basically a self-absorbed jerkface. I tried on personalities like outfits. Really awful, 80s-era outfits, the images of which I wish I could scrub from my brain.
As a younger teenager, one of my favorite books was Edith Konecky’s Allegra Maud Goldman. In it, Konecky writes, “I have a terrible memory. I never forget a thing.”
Yeah. It’s like that.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?
I’d been writing fiction and poetry all my life, but I didn’t know that a regular person could become a writer. Writers were near-magical creatures that lived in cabins on snow-capped mountaintops or maybe in chic garrets in Paris. Writers didn’t worry about things like mortgages and health insurance and toilet paper. My parents worried about things like mortgages and health insurance and toilet paper; they would have laughed me out of the house if I’d told them I wanted to become a novelist. (Now that I’m thinking about it, they did chuckle a bit when I first told them I was writing a novel. Writing a novel! What are you, French or something?)
Since becoming a writer wasn’t an option, I thought I would study psychology and perhaps become a therapist. Because the world needs more insanely awkward therapists.
But really, I just wanted to be an adult because I thought that once you turned eighteen other people finally stopped telling you what to do.
What were your high school years like?
I daydreamed my way through high school. I didn’t get bad grades, but I didn’t pay much attention either, and I made no effort to do better, because putting in an effort was humiliating. I had no idea how to study and I thought asking questions — out loud! In front of everyone! — was also humiliating. Everything was humiliating. (Humiliation? Humiliating!) If I had been born ten or twenty years later, I’m sure I would have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or ADHD or both, but because I grew up in the 80s and the adults were too busy getting divorced to pay attention, I drifted along in a haze, my head filled with boys and with monsters.
A few amazing teachers did take notice of me, however. Mr. B., my sophomore English teacher and the owner of the world’s most spectacular comb-over, adored my rage-y, unfathomable poems and picked me to be the journalism editor for the yearbook. He also nominated me for a special creative writing class with another teacher, whom I’ll call Ms. M. Unlike Mr. B., Ms. M. didn’t care much for my rage-y, unfathomable poems. Actually, she hated them. She preferred rhymes about things like rainbows and bunny rabbits and love, true love. She told the roomful of mortified 15-year-olds that each time she got her period she felt more like a woman.
When one of my stories was selected for inclusion in the school literary magazine, Ms. M. challenged me on every aspect of it—What IS this? Was my mother ever really in an insane asylum? Did I think this was charming?
This was not, she informed me, charming.
Weirdly, her challenge made me that much more determined to write what I wanted to write, what I had to write, no matter how dark or strange or uncharming.
What were some of your passions during that time?
I wrote hundreds of angsty poems, as well as stories for the school yearbook. I acted in the school plays, something I adored (despite the fact that the audience has to look at you the whole time you’re on stage, and that made me so tense I couldn’t eat for weeks). I was terrible at most sports but an excellent swimmer, and became a lifeguard when I was old enough. (Mostly, I liked having the whistle. The whistle was cool.)
I was also mad for books and read constantly. When I was freshman, I got my first job as a page in the public library. I couldn’t shelve books to save my life—I would learn in college that I flip numbers not unlike the way some people flip letters (sorry librarians!)—but I loved helping people find the right books. I still do.
Favorite writers when I was a younger teen: Judy Blume, Lois Duncan, Robert Cormier, Paul Zindel, Norma Fox Mazer, Ellen Conford, Paula Danziger. Later, I got into horror and read Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Robert McCammon. In school, I particularly liked Macbeth, To Kill a Mockingbird, Frankenstein, The Scarlet Letter, Waiting for Godot and Their Eyes Were Watching God.
I was also obsessed with horror films. Halloween, Poltergeist, Nightmare on Elm Street, Ghost Story, anything bloody, anything scary. I will watch Jaws every single time it’s on TV I love it so much, silly rubber shark and all.
Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?
My parents divorced when I was six years old but I saw my father fairly regularly till I was eight, when he married a woman who didn’t much care for being a stepmother. The visits tapered off, then stopped altogether. My mother didn’t discuss it with me at the time, but she begged him to see me and my sister, and spent years in court fighting for child support.
My mother soon remarried as well. I didn’t see my father again until I was a sophomore in high school, and planned to change my last name to my stepdad’s. My father was notified. He suddenly demanded his visitation rights and showed up in the principal’s office yelling for my school records. In court, my father claimed I had been poisoned against him. I wrote an affidavit arguing otherwise, and my father’s lawyer said I was too young to have written it. I was dragged to a court-appointed psychological evaluation.
I should have been humiliated by it all—by the drama at my school, by the forced psych evaluation, by the refusal of all these idiot adults to believe I’d written what I’d written, to believe me. Except I wasn’t humiliated, I was furious. And not furious in a self-conscious or inchoate way, not furious just for the sake of it. I was purely, righteously angry. I thought, here I am telling the truth and I’m being punished for it.
But after this happened, it was much harder to be angry at stupid little things, much harder to be humiliated by the need to ask a question. Some of the debilitating self-consciousness began to fall away.
What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?
When I finally escaped high school and got to college, I took a women’s studies class. The teacher was the first woman I’d ever met who loudly and proudly proclaimed herself a feminist. I adored her, but she was so intense I was a little afraid of her at the same time. She was strong and confident and no frills; I felt silly and frivolous with my goofy pink hair and layers of scarves and ridiculous eyeliner. For my first paper, I took a risk and wrote about how my mother used to call me “the smart one” and my sister “the pretty one,” with “pretty” being the much bigger compliment. I wrote about how limiting and hurtful these labels were, how the culture puts so big a premium on the way a girl looks rather than on how she thinks or what she does. I was walking out of class one day and the teacher ran after me. She held the paper up so I could see the A+ and said, “You will write a book one day.”
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Did you heed that advice? Would your teen self have listened?
Once, I was whining to my dear friend Anne Ursu about feeling incapable of writing a particular story, feeling like I wasn’t talented enough to do it. And she told me that it was good I felt that way, that you should always be working at the very limits of your abilities. What’s the point, she said, of writing a book you already know how to write?
But I think this advice applies to almost everything. It’s just a more elegant and specific way of saying, “Try. Just try.” That’s what I would tell my teen self: “For the love of kitties, just put in a little bit of effort, will you?” And my teen self would have hidden under the bed.
Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?
I regret purple eye shadow and big New Jersey hair. Western blouses and prairie skirts. White pumps and hammer pants. Knee-length, corduroy knickers.
I really really regret the knickers.
What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?
My cat, Oliver. He looked like he was put together with the parts of a bunch of other cats and maybe also a raccoon, and he was the fiercest, friendliest and most awesome cat that ever lived. I wish I had a picture of him to show you but my mom hoarded them all for a shrine in her house. We worship it every Thanksgiving.
Every Day I Write the Book
“I find anger so energizing, so motivating…Anger is what prompts me to write,” you explained recently, while also questioning critics who seem to demand seemly, subtle, “nice” prose from female writers, “as if misogyny isn’t something to be hyper about. As if rage isn’t an integral part of the production of art. As if the expression of rage can’t be artistic…As if a work of art can’t be overtly political.” Anger seems to inspire you both as a writer and as a commentator on topics like equality and diversity, feminism, and the state of YA literature, and I’m wondering, what makes you angry? How do you harness that anger constructively?
Oh, boy. I’m angry a LOT. I think I’ve been angry since I was five or six years old and first started to realize that girls are treated very differently in the world than boys are (and that I was always supposed to be “nice” and “quiet” and keep my wide-ranging opinions to myself). That said, it has always been and will probably always be a challenge for me to harness that anger constructively, to take a minute to think about what I’m reacting to, what exactly about any particular situation is setting me off, before I explode in a cloud of flustered babbling and/or careless snark. I struggle to find a balance between telling the truth of my experience as a woman and just trying to get along in the world without having a rage embolism every forty seconds and without making too many enemies. A hard line to walk. Impossible, really.
Anger management has become an even greater challenge as I realize how much I have participated in the structural sexism I rail against, how many times I’ve failed because I’ve internalized so many damaging notions about girls and boys, women and men. Not too long ago, I was having lunch at a blues club in downtown Chicago. A bunch of very young men got a table nearby, and it was clear from the reactions of some other people that these men were in a band that my friends and I didn’t recognize because we’re oldsters. I went to the ladies room, and there were some teenage girls at the sink, fixing their lipstick and chattering/vibrating/shrieking/jumping up and down with excitement at the prospect of seeing this band. My first reaction? Sneering irritation. Who were these silly girls? Why were they freaking out over a bunch of dudes they didn’t know? Why were they making idiots of themselves? Why wouldn’t they get out of my way and let me wash my old lady hands? It took me a few seconds before I realized that I was judging these young women simply because they were passionate about something, simply because they were expressing that passion. This is a culture that gives young women no real outlets for their intense emotions, no safe place to put their desires. Teen girls are not supposed to want anything, they are supposed to be wanted—acting like agents instead of like objects is Not Allowed. Desire in young women is somehow embarrassing, unseemly, unladylike, ridiculous. And though I have written about and talked about the insanity of these sexist notions over and over, here I was, having the same condescending, sexist reaction to these young women that other people had to me when I was young. I was appalled by myself.
Of course, that is not the first time I’ve been appalled by myself. And it won’t be the last. The concept of intersectionality isn’t new to me, and yet the culture that I grew up in is not only sexist, it’s racist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. It all makes me really angry. But we like to believe that all expressions/notions of racism or sexism or other –isms are blatant and obvious and super-easy to excise from one’s own consciousness, especially if you’re aware, especially if you’re a “good” person. And yet it’s not so easy (as the above example at the blues club demonstrates).
You’ve drawn on various myths and fairy tales in much of your work, with references to Cinderella, Snow White, and Persephone, alongside indirect allusions, reminiscent language, and traditional tropes and motifs, and you’ve talked about the power and role of fairy tales in multiple posts and interviews. What draws you to fairy tales, as both reader and writer, and do you have favorite traditional tales, modern retellings, or work inspired by fairy tales to recommend?
Just the other day, there was discussion on Twitter about the new live-action Cinderella, and whether or not this particular fairy tale was sexist, whether it was wrong to sell the idea that only a prince/man can rescue a girl from a desperate situation. I haven’t seen the movie so can’t comment on that interpretation of the tale, but I can say that the story of Cinderella has always resonated with me not because of the prince or even the happily-ever-after, but because of the relationship between Cinderella and her stepmother. The parental failure, the resentment on the part of the stepmother and stepsisters, the terrible injustice of Cinderella’s situation, the fact that Cinderella endures abuse without losing all hope—a fact pointed out by another YA writer, Melissa Grey—still hits me in a painful, visceral way, not least because I’m a stepmother myself.
And then there are the ideas about beauty. In my family of origin, the best thing, the most important thing a girl could be was beautiful. Both Cinderella and Snow White are stories about female beauty, about beauty as a commodity, the most valuable commodity a woman could possess. I like what Helen Oyeyemi said about her amazing novel Boy, Snow, Bird, a novel that takes its inspiration from Snow White: “Boy, Snow, Bird is very much a wicked stepmother story. Every wicked stepmother story is to do with the way women disappoint each other, and encourage each other, across generations. A lot of terrible things can come out of that disappointment.”
Of course most of us don’t experience the kind of baroque and violent abuse that the characters in fairy tale suffer, but all of us have been on the receiving end of parental/caretaker rage, resentment and disappointment in some small way during our childhoods, all of us have been failed. These failures leave scars. In a discussion about fairy tales moderated by Kate Bernheimer, the scholar Maria Tatar quoted Roger Scruton: “consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.” Fairy tales, Tatar said, “give us the old cliché about the triumph of hope over adversity, in terms marked by excess in its most grotesque forms. You can survive, even if your stepmother tries to kill you, and you can outwit all those other monsters in the woods. But you need brains and courage to navigate your way through the trouble, and sometimes playing the innocent is precisely what will enable you to get home again.”
As for retellings that I’ve enjoyed, I just read and adored Malinda Lo’s Ash, which I think is truly empowering Cinderella tale with a lesbian twist. Robin McKinley’s Deerskin is a raw and terrible and beautiful retelling of the fairy tale of the same name. Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl and Book of a Thousand Days are favorites of mine (I still believe The Goose Girl should have won All Of The Things). American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang is a masterful weaving of three different stories, one of them based on the Monkey King. I think Swati Avasthi’s Chasing Shadows is a fascinating YA prose/graphic novel hybrid that uses Hindu story of Savitri, a fierce, pious woman who is able to convince Yama, the God of Death, to bring her dead husband back to life. And Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring (written for adults) is about Toronto a decade or so after an economic collapse, and uses Caribbean lore as inspiration.
There are some recurring themes in your work–family relationships, the importance of memory, friendship, the effect of technology–but the one I want to ask you about is perception. You’ve described Bone Gap as “a novel about love, certainly…but it’s also about perception, and how easy it is to mistake the evidence of our own senses for the whole truth of another person.” You’ve explored the concept of perception from many angles including the effect of rumor and reputation, the slippery notion of “truth,” and the idea that people are so much more than what you see. Could you talk a little about why that theme resonates with you so strongly and how it informs your approach to writing?
I think my fascination with perception and “truth” is connected to my fascination with certain fairy tales: for most of my childhood, I felt deeply misunderstood, unseen, rejected, broken in a way that wasn’t visible from the outside. More than that, the way I saw the world wasn’t the way other people seemed to see it (particularly as it concerned how women/girls were treated). My memories of events were contradicted all the time, even as people relied on me for my memory when it was convenient for them. My truth wasn’t their truth. It wasn’t even mine.
A friend once told me about a talk she attended. She quoted the speaker as saying that every writer writes because at some significant point in their lives, they were not heard. I write, I think, because I was often neither seen nor heard. And when I was, well…I wished I hadn’t been.
Your current novel, Bone Gap, has been described as a fairy tale, a modern fable, and “one part magical realism and two parts fantasy.” I wanted to ask you about the genesis of Bone Gap, not necessarily the central story or characters (which you’ve talked about elsewhere) but rather the language and mood–evocative, mythic, dreamlike. Bone Gap represents a rare foray into American magic realism, it seems to me, and I wonder if that was a conscious choice, if it changed at all during the editing process, and whether you had any stylistic or literary touchstones you used as inspiration?
Some years ago, I did a lot of school visits throughout rural Illinois, which meant I spent hours and hours driving through the cornfields. Traveling—by plane or car—gives me a strange feeling of being neither here nor there, a woman out of place and time, and this feeling was heightened when I drove through these fields, with nothing but corn all around me. Even in your car, you feel buried in the cornstalks, hidden in them, hidden by them. I could have sworn I saw the cornstalks walking.
I’ve always felt that nature itself is magical and wanted to get that on the page. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve read about animals and insects—ants, butterflies, dung beetles, mantids, bees—and find their behavior magical. A honeybee dances a certain type of waggle dance when she finds a flower patch and wants to guide her sisters to it. The direction and duration of the dance corresponds to the location of the flowers and their distance from the hive. And sure, scientists study this behavior and talk about the geometry of the dance in relation to the location of the blossoms, the types of chemicals secreted by the bees and the electrical charges accumulated during flying, etc. etc., and that’s really cool, but the scientific explanations don’t change the fact that honeybees dance and this is magical. Flowers that grow petals shaped to attract bees are magical. Cats are magical. Dogs are. Horses. Goats! Goats seem to have a sense of humor—how is that not magical? All of this I wanted to be part of my book. In the earliest drafts, there was no real magic aside from the somewhat cheeky behavior of the animals (and there was a scientific explanation for everything). But as I revised, the magic kept intruding and expanding, lurking everywhere, especially when I realized that I was writing about love. And love is magical, too. As practical a person as I am—and I am!—that’s my worldview, that there’s magic lurking everywhere and if you look hard enough, you’ll find it. That plants and animals and trees and cornfields are magical, that love is magical. (And not in a “love can save us” way, but more in the way that love can make us stronger, it can help us save ourselves, even when it’s a flawed love, even when it’s not a happily-ever-after love).
With this book I wasn’t necessarily trying to write a fantasy, a work of magical realism, or a fairy tale per se, though I’m comfortable with Bone Gap being called any or all of those things. When I started writing I was just trying to capture the magic of this particular place, this certain landscape, that feeling of being neither here nor there that I had when I was driving through those fields. My friend Franny Billingsley said that a novel doesn’t really work until it can’t be set anywhere else. Once I knew where this story took place, the magic and the mood was simply a part of it. And the language I used to describe this place was the only language that seemed to make sense.
In terms of stylistic and literary touchstones, I turned to my favorite short fiction and poetry (and a few novels, too). Anne Sexton’s fairy-tale poems in Transformations. The surreal stories of Aimee Bender. The not-always-linear short fiction of Lorrie Moore. Hannah Tinti’s collection Animal Crackers. I adore the sly creepiness and dread in the work of Dan Chaon. Kelly Link’s monsters. The poetic vignettes in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. The sheer power of the language in Nicole Krauss’s gorgeous The History of Love. And I reread the myth of Persephone and the story of Cupid and Psyche, among other myths.
Just Can’t Get Enough
Question from Gail Carriger: If I were to observe the writer beast in its native environment, what surprising thing might I see? What does the environment look like?
The environment for this writer beast is a big drafty house with a ton of windows, approximately four thousand books and not nearly enough cats (because one could never have enough cats). Perhaps that’s not surprising, though. What might be surprising is the little shrine over my desk with all sorts of talismans and toys: a creepy Kewpie doll, a punked-out Barbie, Catwoman figurines, the orange monster from Bugs Bunny, little slips of paper with my favorite words, a miniature Tarot deck, a few bugs, etc., most of them gifts from family and friends. When I don’t know what to write, when I’m feeling lost and confused, I look at this shrine and usually find some bit of inspiration to get me writing again.
Laura has contributed a question for the next author in the series, Susan Juby. Watch for an interview with her coming soon!
–Julie Bartel, currently reading The Bishop’s Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison and Andrew Smith’s The Alex Crow